“Then in the middle of that grand struggle in my inner house, which I had vehemently stirred up with my soul in the intimate chamber of my heart, distressed not only in mind but in appearance, I turned on Alypius and cried out: ‘What is wrong with us? What is this that you have heard? Uneducated people are rising up and capturing heaven, and we are with our high culture without any heart – see where we roll in the mud of flesh and blood. Is it because they are ahead of us that we are ashamed to follow?’”
St. Augustine, Confessions VIII.19
There are few more inspiring stories in all of Christian history than the conversion of St. Augustine. He was brilliant, well-educated, and influential. He had gone from a childhood in remote North Africa to spending his early career in the most interesting cities of the late Roman Empire. He enjoyed the company of women. By the world’s standards, he had it all; but deep within his heart, he felt completely empty. In a succession of events he grew closer to the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; but the final steps proved to be agonizing. He found it famously difficult to give up his “sexual habit,” but in this passage we see that a much more infectious sin was preventing him: Pride – and specifically, pride in seeing his intellect go to waste in a religion that neither offered nor required any secret knowledge reserved for the most enlightened.
We are feigning outrage if we say Augustine’s hesitation to convert is offensively elitist. Most of us do it in one way or another. God’s grace may seem like a beautiful idea, but it can be jarring in practice. A wretch like me is, well, a wretch like me – not that other guy who hasn’t thought half as hard as I have about the big questions of existence. The Lord finally broke down St. Augustine’s pride, and I pray he keeps breaking down mine and yours too. Augustine went back home to Africa to minister in the humblest and least glamorous of circumstances. There he found his greatest joy. In the end, all that high culture had prepared him to imitate Christ, who “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). As with Augustine, people with big intellects need to remember that big hearts are far more precious.
About St. Augustine: Born in Roman Africa in 354 A.D., St. Augustine is the author of some of the most important theological works in the Christian tradition. Among them, Confessions remains one of the most powerful and most accessible. He worked tirelessly for the conversion of souls as Bishop of Hippo from 395 until his death in 430.
A History of Grace is a brand new Key Life series that pairs selections from classic theological works with insightful commentary from your favorite Key Life writers.
Check out our interview with James K.A. Smith on Augustine here